Cubs President Theo Epstein understands the rewards and risks of free agency, from the bonanza signing of Jon Lester four years ago to the struggles of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood in 2018.
Epstein did not shy away from the need for a productive hitter in his end-of-the-season media session four weeks ago. And the availability of perennial All-Stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, combined with the team’s riches with a lucrative television contract looming, heighten hopes that the offense will rebound in a more consistent manner.
But the bullpen needs insurance in the wake of the season-ending bone bruise to closer Brandon Morrow, and more young starting pitching depth is needed as Lester and Cole Hamels reach their mid-30s. And utility player Ben Zobrist turns 38 in late May of the final season of his contract.
With the general managers meetings next week in Carlsbad, Calif., groundwork for potential free-agent signings and trades will begin. Here are the Cubs’ three main offseason options in free agency with the pros and cons of each choice:
Harper is a six-time National League All-Star who has averaged 33 home runs over the last four seasons with an .889 OPS or higher in three of those years. He seemingly provides the perfect prescription for a Cubs offense that scored one or zero runs in 40 regular-season games.
Harper also is a lifetime .333 batter with a 1.106 OPS in 79 career plate appearances at Wrigley Field.
Harper, 26, is 8½ months younger than fellow Las Vegas native Kris Bryant. The mix of left-handed (Anthony Rizzo and Harper) and right-handed hitters (Javier Baez and Bryant) — combined with switch-hitter Zobrist — would give opposing managers headaches.
Harper may be in line for the richest contract in major-league history, and the Cubs would need to create some financial space for Harper unless they are resigned to paying payroll tax penalties for 2019.
Harper isn’t regarded as a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder, but his addition likely would shift Jason Heyward to center unless Harper is willing to move to left field — where the Cubs already have a glut of outfielders.
Harper’s success at Wrigley would seem a plus for the Cubs, but he will receive heavy interest from the Phillies and there is a comfort level if he sticks with the Nationals, who need the slugger more than the Cubs do. Expect the Nationals at least to get the last at-bat in these sweepstakes.
In addition to his four-year average of 36 home runs and an .861 OPS or higher in three of those four seasons, Machado provides versatility on the left side of the infield. That enables third baseman Kris Bryant to move to the outfield or Javier Baez from shortstop to second base if Addison Russell doesn’t return.
Machado, 26, also has played in 162 games in two of the last four seasons and has missed only 11 games during that span.
Machado also would give the Cubs another right-handed bat to surround Rizzo and the switch-hitting Zobrist.
A Machado contract could cause some financial stress similar to a Harper deal, and Machado benefited greatly last season from batting at Oriole Park (.360 batting average, 17 home runs, 35 RBIs in 48 games) before being dealt in midseason to the Dodgers.
Opponents snickered over some stories in early September that suggested the Cubs had a “mental edge” heading into the postseason — less than a month before the Cubs were eliminated quickly from the playoffs and Epstein subsequently questioned whether his players had a sense of urgency throughout the regular season.
Foes also enjoyed the Cubs’ lack of power down the stretch. Despite Machado’s All-Star talents, his lack of hustle and assorted antics during the playoffs wouldn’t shrink the target on the Cubs.
Spread the wealth
Not tying up most of their allotted money in one player would give the Cubs the flexibility to spend in more than one area and address multiple needs.
The Cubs need insurance for Morrow, and there are plenty of free agent late-inning relievers available — including Craig Kimbrel, Adam Ottavino, Zach Britton, Kelvin Herrera and Brad Brach. However, the team’s tendency has been to opt for shorter deals with potential closers.
Switch-hitting infielder Jed Lowrie would be a cheaper heir apparent for the seasoned Zobrist’s current role, although Lowrie hasn’t played any outfield in his 11 big-league seasons.
If the Cubs spread their money wisely, they might have enough wiggle room for a midseason addition without grossly exceeding the salary threshold of $207 million.
There’s always the risk of overpaying for a mid-level free agent without the credentials of Harper or Machado, as was the case in the past with Edwin Jackson and Chatwood.
The Cubs could find the trade market more attractive in addressing needs than last season.
“We spent a lot of money on players,” Epstein said at his end-of-the-season news conference four weeks ago. “That’s not always the answer — to rush back and spend more.
“That said, there’s obviously a lot of attractive players and some impact players out there. We’ll get together and figure out what’s possible and what’s not possible and all the best different approaches to the offseason.”